6 Further WCM delusions

6.10 A work is greater than any performance of it


There is an absolutely correct interpretation, or at least a limited selection of correct interpretations, but it is an idea: it cannot even be recognized in its pure state, let alone realized. The measure of an interpretation is the height of its failure. … something is always wrong.[1]

Not many performers, surely, will welcome Adorno’s characteristically trenchant view that all performance is failure. As we shall see in Part 2, there is far too much damning of classical performers already. A more sympathetic view of this oft-stated belief (that the work is always greater) sees a work as a field of possibilities, for whose richness in potential we have to thank the composer. Many fine performances can be made within it, but it will never be possible to realise all that potential in just one of those. The work is thus defined by that theoretical totality.[2] This is an attractive way of thinking about scores (NB scores) and performances, even when (perhaps especially when) we dissolve the work concept. It comes under strain, though, as soon as we look at pieces that were never conceived by their composer in the kind of depth we like to attribute to the masters of the high classical music, which in its purest form (as Janet Levy pointed out in the 1980s) means Germanic composition of the 18th to early 20th centuries.[3] Christopher Small (1998) points to 19th-century Italian and French opera for examples of pieces that acquire full value only in superlatively virtuosic performances, the value brought by a performer to a relatively sketchy score.[4] The same applies, of course, to most popular song which may never have had a score in the first place, hence the endless series of court cases in which performers in rock bands attempt to gain some continuing rights for their contribution to what the courts still insist on seeing as works created by just one of them, the imaginary composer. It’s not coincidence that the law depends on the work concept: it was written by people who saw classical music as proper music and the rest as merely debased derivatives.

With classical music, however under-determined (to borrow analytic philosophy’s useful view of score),[5] we seem to be able to ask, ‘what remains when you take away the performance?’, expecting the answer, ‘enough to constitute something in which that performance and the experiences it generated were already implicit or in some idealist sense existing’. But does any of it exist? Only in some shared assumptions about how notes sound, assumptions that, as we’ve seen, change greatly over time. Even if one agreed—which musicians have by no means always believed—that those notes could not be changed, what is there of this artefact, in the score or anywhere else, that is more powerful (‘greater’) than a performance of them or separable from one?

It’s the fact that a score can give rise, given fine performers, to so many enriching musical experiences that makes us want to imagine something lying behind them that contains all that greatness. But actually, just as in popular music, it is the performers who are doing the work, making the experiences. That they are working from notes in a score doesn’t make their contribution any less vital. So what is the composer’s role? There can be no doubt that some scores repeatedly give rise to far greater experiences than others. But it’s also all too possible to murder a score, as we all know from listening to school concerts. Performance always makes a major contribution, of whatever kind. And so we need to get more used to thinking of classical music as a game with several players, a composer, a performer, a listener, a culture of composition, a culture of performance and a culture of response, as a minimum.[6] And we need also to temper the tendency to see the composer as the single point of origin for the process by understanding composition not just as a cultural practice but also as imagined performance. Performance and the experience of performance are always there, contributing vitally to whatever else is involved in the making of music. One may think of composition as a process of organising some of the materials in advance.

Overall, then, classical music becomes less a matter of construction and more a matter of expression than we’re generally taught; and this is entirely consistent with what we saw in discussing the performance of form: an imagined whole, a work, a field of possibilities, is not as pertinent to the nature of music as the experience of each moment as it happens.


Continue to 6.11 ‘Scores have limited interpretative possibilities

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[1] Adorno, Theodor W. 2006. Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction: Notes, a Draft and Two Schemata. Ed. Henri Lonitz, tr. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity), 92.

[2] Benson, Bruce Ellis. 2003. The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music (Cambridge University Press), 147–54.

[3] Levy, Janet M. 1987. Covert and Casual Values in Recent Writings about Music. The Journal of Musicology 5(1), 3–27.

[4] Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. 1st ed. (Middletown CT: Wesleyan), 6–7.

[5] E.g. Godlovich, Stan. 1998. Musical Performance: A Philosophical Study (London: Routledge), 82, 86–8.

[6] Born, Georgina. 2010. For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135, 205–43. Cook, Nicholas. Musical Encounters: Studies in Relational Musicology. IMR Distinguished Lecture Series 2016. https://vimeo.com/173467067; https://vimeo.com/174331931; https://vimeo.com/176142250; https://vimeo.com/178029806.

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